Right about now, in a normal world, Canadians would be transforming into their summer selves – a nation of restless bears emerging from a long winter.
But here we’ve arrived at the first long weekend of the treasured sunny season, and restaurant patios stand empty, beach parties are banned and crossing borders to the cottage is frowned upon, if not forbidden.
Even as the country opens in bits and pieces, sleepover camps are closing for the season, or leaning in that direction. Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival, Ottawa’s Canada Day fireworks, the Calgary Stampede: cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. A July flight west to introduce baby to the grandparents seems too risky to be contemplated. If you’re a Maritimer living away, the dream of getting home is fading.
Of all the cherished rituals stolen from us by COVID-19, after all these difficult weeks, the prospect of losing our one, quick gulp of summer may be the final straw.
The question on everybody’s mind: Can summer be saved? Ottawa and the provinces are making announcements, and tweaking timelines every week, but bans on large group gatherings, two-week quarantine rules for new arrivals and physical-distancing rules are expected to stay in place. Some provinces are keeping their borders closed to non-essential visitors – or at least strongly suggesting that people stay away.
“There is still a glimmer of hope. I am not giving up,“ said Ottawa resident Laura Peck, who goes home every summer to Cape Breton to see family, visit childhood landmarks and walk the beach. But she knows the odds are against it. “Everybody is trying to put on a brave face. But my God, it’s hard. I will miss every darn thing.”
Barring a surge in new COVID-19 cases, it’s likely that fragments of summer will happen in some places – just not for everyone equally, as Troy Glover, chair of the Department of Recreation & Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo, points out.
If property owners get the green light, what happens to cottage renters? What if some Canadians can put their sailboats in the water, but kids in the city can’t swim in public pools? Opening up summer, Dr. Glover says, has to be about more than marinas and golf courses. “How do we invest in spaces that will give access to the many as opposed to the few?"
Cottage time and camping may seem like frivolous worries relative to the tragedy that COVID-19 has wrought. But the mental-health pangs of this pandemic are also real – and rising, according to national surveys. Going home is the chance “to replenish your soul,” Ms. Peck says. Spending time in places of meaning and beauty are prescriptions proved by research to reduce anxiety and depression.
Not that Canadians need a science lesson to establish the rare value of warm water and hot sun, especially given how many of us woke up to snow falling on this year’s May flowers.
“We come out of our cocoon when the weather gets better, and that better weather is very brief,“ Dr. Glover says. “Summer has become so important just as a time to connect with people.”
Perhaps never more so than this year, after months of being forced to isolate from each other. Talking to Canadians lamenting the possible loss of their summer rituals is like taking a trip through stages of grief: denial, bargaining (if we never leave the cottage, can’t we still go?) and sorrowful acceptance that the risks are too high.
In North Vancouver, Ashley Hennessey, who drives her kids across the country every summer to their cottage in Métis-sur-Mer, Que., is still plotting a possible route – with off-the-beaten-path pit stops where they could maintain physical distancing. She’s been going there every summer since she was a kid, and now her children love it. “I think we’re gonna try unless things get really bad or the roads are blocked,” she says.
Of course, for many displaced Canadians, summer vacation is about more than getting to a cottage: It’s the chance to go home, see aging parents and new babies, continue family traditions with the next generation and connect with one’s roots.
“When you’re born by the water, it’s almost like a calling,” explains Lindsay Parker, a security guard in Calgary, who had hoped to go home to Truro, N.S. this summer. “As soon as I step off the plane in Halifax and breathe in the salty air, I instantly feel better.”
She had an anniversary party planned, her cousin’s new twins to meet, stomping grounds to visit. She’ll miss that annual donair and the cut she always gets from her hairdresser best friend. Not getting home to comfort family feels like a particular loss after a spring of tragedy in Nova Scotia: the mass shooting, a lost little boy and a crashed military helicopter, on top of the pandemic. “It’s been very difficult to be away,“ she said. But with the borders closed, and 14 days of self isolation required, the possibility of making the trip any time soon seems impossible.
As painful as it will be to stay away, Ms. Peck predicts she probably won’t be heading east either, unless public heath issues improve. The summer course she teaches at Cape Breton University is moving online, and she won’t endanger the people she loves in Sydney Mines, N.S., especially her widowed mom, who plays host to her in the old family home. “We have to be emotionally intelligent. Are you bringing more burdensome problems?”
In Dr. Glover’s home, the likely loss of summer traditions is also keenly felt, not for the chance to relive memories, but to make them. While adults can reluctantly wait a year, a teenager gets only so many free-spirited summers before those days are filled with jobs and responsibilities.
“We’re holding out hope but it’s not looking good,” Dr. Glover says about the camp his two daughters, 16 and 12, have attended every summer since they were school age. “I feel such a sense of loss for them knowing how powerful the experience is, and that they will have to wait a full year to have it again.”
His eldest, Claire Parry-Glover, would have been a counsellor-in-training this year. Now she wonders whether she is missing her last chance at summer camp. “I am upset about it,” she said. “I have some really good friends there that I might not get to see again.”
As a backup, her sister, Charlotte, is planning to pitch a tent in the backyard. In British Columbia, Ms. Hennessey is brainstorming projects to occupy her family – gardening, paddling, visiting friends in the province.
This year, for many Canadians, saving summer will mean savouring the essence of the season, wherever they are.
Ultimately, says Claire, summer offers “a chance to breathe.” Something we all need, after months of holding our breath.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.